How Progressive or Liberal Christianity destroys the Church

How Progressive or Liberal Christianity destroys the Church March 21, 2013

I rarely take a lunch break as I work from home. But I did yesterday. I attended a New Media Think Tank put on by people from Premier. The main theme was on how Christians should disagree agreeably online. I agreed with much of what was said, and there was some very interesting conversation. One thing that came up was how different it is to meet someone face to face and online. It is much easier to create a straw man of someone online.

As an example I met Simon Jenkins, who is the editor of Ship of Fools. Now it is fair to say (and this may surprise some of my British readers) that neither he nor I actually knew of each other specifically before we met yesterday. But, I did know of the Ship of Fools website, and some years ago something or other I read there offended me and so I stopped reading that, and have since thought of that site as being “opposed” to people like me. Simon, on the other hand, spoke publicly at the event in what I felt was a dismissive way about “Reformed Christians,” and spoke about various social issues (and hence doctrinal beliefs as these two aspects of our faith are of course entwined) saying basically something like “History is moving, the culture has changed, it is inevitable even people from your faith group will have to catch up.” Jenkins seemed genuinely surprised that I would be as offended as I was by such comments. Perhaps the first step of us being able to actually understand each other was realising that up to this point we haven’t, or at least, our ways of describing the other are like straw men that in themselves generate straw man. So, to me, Simon appeared to me to be dismissive of people like me, because of the way he described them, but actually in the flesh it was clear that was not the result he wanted to cause.

I may well have been slightly over-sensitive, but to be honest, the whole event made me feel ever so slightly out of place. It felt to me at least that people I love were being painted with a broad brush as “regressive,” “backward,” and even the word “sexist” got bandied around a bit. It felt like some people were making all kinds of assumptions about what “people like me” would think about issues like gender roles, and homosexuality, when the reality is there is these issues are far more nuanced than at first appear, and it is wrong to assume things about others. In fact, not for the first time, I felt that some there would see me and others I love and respect as little different from the Taliban!

I really struggle with the notion of the need for the church to simply follow the culture or risk being irrelevant. It is such a pragmatic argument, and it is one that is made a lot in the secular media: if only the church would simply “wise up” and “get with the program,” so it doesn’t seem as out of touch, the argument goes, then people would flock to it. It really saddens me to see other Christians joining the swelling ranks of those who angrily dismiss any dissenting opinions to the new secular orthodoxy! Why can’t we simply allow people to think differently and respect them?

I think there are two major problems, in any case, with the argument that we must go with the flow of every change in Society:

1. The Church’s role is not to be a blind follower of the majority opinion! Social change is inevitable. But the voice of the Church is not merely to echo that of the world. On some social issues in the past the Church has been at the vanguard, such as for example on the abolition of the slave-trade here in the UK. Of course, even on such issues that seem obvious now, there was vociferous debate within the Church at the time. Indeed subsequently, and to the shame of the Church at the time, in the American South, the Church as a whole was not at the forefront of pushing for the abolition of slavery itself.

On other issues the church has been a cautious break to “progress,” but has, over time, broadly accepted changes in Society. For example, when it comes to divorce, which was once vociferously opposed by Christians, the Church has largely accepted that Society requires readily available divorce, and no one I know of is advocating changes to the legal system to restrict divorce. Today, within most churches divorce is discouraged as less than ideal for a Christian, but divorcees are treated with grace. Other issues, like abortion are so passionately held in many Christian circles that it seems inconceivable that the Church will ever come to an easy accommodation with Society, however long we wait.

Fundamentally, however, the Church is meant to have a prophetic voice. It is vital therefore that we engage theologically before simply making changes to line us up with prevailing thinking. I may not agree with NT Wright on everything, but I did strongly agree with his statement towards the end of this video when he said, “The day the church ceases to be able to say we must obey God rather than human authority we cease to be the church.” (via Think Christian).

2. It doesn’t work!

As far as my understanding of church history in the last hundred years or so, there have been several attempts to make the Church more acceptable to society, and the conclusion is they have broadly failed. A reader on Facebook pointed out a very helpful article on this point from the Daily Telegraphwhich I think is well worth reading in it’s entirety. It is titled, “America’s liberal Christians might be progressive and inclusive, but they are also dying out”

I will give you a few excerpts here to whet your appetite:

” Conservatives might protest that the beauty of God is rooted not in relevance but timelessness.”

“Pentecostalism bucks the trend. Where it is ultra-orthodox, Christianity is actually flourishing.”

“Liberal Christianity is wracked with doubt, ducks strong conclusions and often seems to apologise for its own existence . . . By contrast, the conservative Christian product is a zinger. It screams loudly that it is the only way to Heaven, its Protestant services tend to be packed and charismatic, and its theology is straight-forward and uncompromising. . .

This is why conservative congregations grow while liberal ones dwindle.”





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  • John Evans

    Hello Adrian, I read your post and smiled, as it reminded me strongly of a good friend of mine who is deeply small-c conservative. He, like I understand you to be saying here, says that there needs to be a group who hold onto what is good and working right now while others experiment, in case the experiments don’t work out. Someone to keep the home fires burning while others are out blazing trails, in case the trailblazers return bloodied.

    Your recognition that the church – any church – can recognize when something has been proven to be a good (or at least not harmful) and accept it as part of the societal tapestry at that time, is – in my eyes at least – wisdom.

    So thank you for being the hearth the explorers can count on.

  • Hi Adrain – I appreciate your words here and understand what it feels like to have your views painted in broad strokes. I trust that those of us, like me, who have been part of charismatic streams will recognise the sincerity of those who are still engaged in such.

    Having said that I have a few observations that I trust will be helpful:

    1) Not withstanding that your recent session might have overtly suggested that a more Liberal stance is driven by the need to be relevant I feel that this too is broad brush. There are many of us who hold what is, by reference to say a Newfrontiers position, a liberal view of many issues but do not attribute this to merely seeking to be relevant to society. I, and others, have a high view of scripture and base our views on a consistent approach to its teaching; even if we come to different conclusions than you do.

    2) Size of congregation and growth is not always a signifyer of truth; if it were the case then many other religions and cults would have a strong case to be heard by you. It is true that a message that is more definite is more comforting and therefore more attractive but I feel your point that ‘it does not work’ with reference to a liberal stance does not help your argument.

    I trust that these thoughts will help the discussion.

    • Thanks Alan. Totally agree that many have different views that are either prompted by a different reading of scripture, or at least Scripture has been interacted with. Where I really struggle is when the reason given for us to change is culture without any reference to the Bible.

      Also totally agree that size is not an indication that there is something automatically right or wrong with the Church in question. But having said that, there does seem to be a trend of more liberal churches shrinking.

  • Fascinating post Adrian, and such an unexpected angle from the event – at which I mostly “heard” people talking about how digital has changed the nature of conversation, rather than about the topics of conversation themselves (and I was concentrating on trying to capture a lot of the event: But then, I tend to be quite relaxed about other people’s opinions – finding them all interesting – and always wondering how people came to that point (and if I should be there too TBH – the joy of being a polymath!). I really enjoyed having you in the conversation – does it say something about ‘online types’ that we can be more vocal? Really hope future events don’t become “bubbles” without that level of (what seemed to be me to be respectful) debate.

  • John Lambert

    Well said Adrian.

    Where are the liberal churches that are winning Guardian readers to Christ, reassured by their low view of Scripture and comfortable with their post-Christian morality? And how many revivals in the history of the church have broken out in churches which undermine the authority of the Bible and accommodate the standards of the world? Case closed.

    • John – are you suggesting that because you haven’t heard of any liberal churches winning people to Christ they don’t exist.

      Not sure if it is misguided or arrogant to think that your own knowledge/experience is the ultimate standard.

      I guess you use I’d ‘case closed’ reveals which it is.

  • Joe Canner

    “This is why conservative congregations grow while liberal ones dwindle.”

    This is what is known in statistical circles as the “correlation does not equal causation” fallacy. While theological/social conservatism is one possible cause of Church growth, there are many other possibilities. Growing churches often have vibrant, contemporary worship, active youth ministry, and dynamic preaching; these churches also often happen to be conservative. Stagnating churches have more traditional worship styles and less dynamic preaching; these churches are often more liberal. Until you can statistically control for differences in worship, preaching, and other similar factors, there can be no apples-to-apples comparison that would allow the conclusion that conservative->growing and liberal->declining.

    Even without statistics one might be able to find counter-examples to prove the point: (1) find a number of liberal churches who have contemporary worship and dynamic preaching but which are still declining; and/or (2) find a number of conservative churches which have traditional worship and preaching styles but which are growing. I suspect these are going to be few and far between.

  • Rick

    What’s an example of the Church “blindly following the majority opinion” that you see as harmful or counter to the Church’s correct direction? Here in America, there is a massive cultural movement against bullying. If I as a believer whole-heartedly an effort like this, am I “following the crowd”? And is that bad? I don’t see how anyone could view this movement as anything but positive, even if it didn’t begin in churches.

    Also, the whole “liberal” thing needs to be defined. Are you talking about liberal theology? Liberal denominations? Evangelicals who hold to the “saved-by-Jesus” theology but who are liberal politically? I consider myself a liberal evangelical, but the liberalism is political, mostly; I’m not liberal enough to reject the virgin birth.

    • It’s simple. We must judge every cultural trend by the Bible. Not the Bible by the cultural trend. Some we champion, some we accept as indifferent (eg music style) others we reject as ungodly!

      • Rick

        So, no examples? If you see the “blind following of trendy issues” as a problem, you might want to give an example of that. Otherwise, I’m not sure what point you’re making, or why you equate liberalism with the following of trends. Sometimes we liberals find ourselves in the position of being very untrendy.

  • Prophetic voice? Amen. But more than that: a prophetic community. A people who embody the prophetic message we proclaim, thereby demonstrating that there is another, better, way.

  • Steve

    Bless you Adrian for your post.
    1 cor 2 and 3 speak a lot regarding the spiritual and carnal condition of people in church.
    If we are Christ’s then I believe no doubt those in him walk according to Him and they look unto Him in all, for he is there all in all. Yes there may be differences in doing things, but born again men and women should not be indifferent to core doctrine. Knowing Him will transform people into his image as that is what the Spirit alone does. Going the other way and denying the word of God shows something is simply not right in a person.
    What a grave error it is that so called Christians will look outside of Christ and his revealed word

    As for being relevant does not the word say that by lifting up Jesus who himself will draw all men to him. Our duty is to make much of God. And if Christ isn’t made much of then churches become social clubs. There is no spirit there.
    Our work is to love God and love our neighbour, to serve them and show and point people to Christ not just by word but by deed. Where needs are shown the church should be first to meet it.
    We are not of the world and so not only should our ways be Holy, but the being different means we do so much more, as Christ loved us so much more by dying for us. Is not this love?
    The church isn’t there to argue theology within itself.Faith without works is dead faith.

    If you think being like the world will save people, or the church not obeying the word and therefore allowing compromise and disobedience to enter doesn’t mean anything to God, then you are ignorant of the faith and of God.
    When Jesus comes will he find faith on earth? Sorry but if God has called you to himself to magnify and glory in his grace then I wouldn’t expect those people to deny their faith. Being like Jesus IS what makes you relevant! I wonder how many of those liberal post modern churches suffer or are persecuted. None I would say. That in itself is denying their Lord.
    The shame of this is that Gods name is profaned among the nations because the world sees hypocritical people. An unsaved person can read the bible and see what it says.Yes they may be dead in their sin but they know a false person when they see one. If the word of God had no root in a person dont expect to see any fruit. Abiding in him does. That is both to the individual and the body of Christ.
    There is a great spiritual battle taking place and unless the captain of your ship is Jesus, then you are not going to get to safe harbour.
    God bless

  • There’s a bit of a straw man in your title, isn’t there? How do you characterise “liberal” Christianity, and what makes it “liberal”?

  • What is “liberal” Christianity?

    The term has changed radically. 25 years ago, a liberal Christian was one who was a member of a church that was not primarily characterized by legalism. Such as Calvary Chapel vs. a generally legalistic denomination like the Catholic or Lutheran churches in 1990.

    Today, a liberal Christian is an apostate. Unsaved. An unbeliever in Christ, an unbeliever in the Bible. The Bible has no shades of “saved”; one is Saved or not. To be saved, a person must believe in Jesus Christ, must believe His Word, must repent and confess.

    The liberal Christian denies this, denies the Bible itself.

    As such it meets the definition of a cult.

    The common situation of liberal churches stating they are into “love”, rather than follow what the Bible teaches is emblematic of “having a form of Godliness, but denying the power thereof.” The truth is not taught, and so the members come to church unsaved and leave unsaved. How not loving someone enough to teach them to be saved— and thus to avoid hell and go to heaven— is somehow “love” is never explained.

    The Laodicean church of 95 A.D. is a good example. Most of those in the church had forgotten Jesus Christ. They had their money, their activities, but few were Saved. Rev 3-14-22 describes a church that is complacent, most of the members were unsaved, those that were saved were lukewarm. 20 years before, Paul had commended them in Colossians.

  • Richard


    Thank you for this article; the concern that I have is twofold. First, that whilst it is indeed true that ‘the voice of the Church is not merely to echo that of the world’, there has been a tendency within evangelical circles historically to overlook how we are to define ‘the world’ and so simply assume that the culture of today is the world and therefore oppose it. Second, the problem with saying that ‘We must judge every cultural trend by the Bible. Not the Bible by the cultural trend.’ is that is overlooks the fact that the Bible is itself a product of specific cultures. Whilst it is true that the Church was at the vanguard on the abolition of the slave-trade, it is nonetheless true that the Bible itself allows for slavery. The sense of justice of those churchmen, was actually ahead of the Bible which, in its teaching on slavery, was a product of ancient Near Eastern and Graeco-Roman culture – though even then, it was ahead of its time.

    On the question of statistics; do check out Why Liberal Churches Are Growing. Christianity and Contemporary Culture. T&T Clark, 2006.

  • David

    Something to note and perhaps to hold true is what may be gleemed from a passage in Genesis 20 in that king Abimelech could of died (at Gods will) had he not allowed the beleif of the fact that even though Abraham had lied or mislead him that he is also a prophet of god and in good repreivement enough in also being able to pray to God for him or would soon pray for him. (ie. Still not without god still even though he lied and was in sin at that moment in time).

    1. And Abraham journeyed from thence toward the south country, and dwelled between Kadesh and Shur, and sojourned in Gerar.
    .2 And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, She is my sister: and Abimelech king of Gerar sent, and took Sarah.
    3. But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, Behold, thou art but a dead man, for the woman which thou hast taken; for she is a man’s wife.
    4 But Abimelech had not come near her: and he said, Lord, wilt thou slay also a righteous nation?
    5 Said he not unto me, She is my sister? and she, even she herself said, He is my brother: in the integrity of my heart and innocency of my hands have I done this.
    6 And God said unto him in a dream, Yea, I know that thou didst this in the integrity of thy heart; for I also withheld thee from sinning against me: therefore suffered I thee not to touch her.
    7 Now therefore restore the man his wife; for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for thee, and thou shalt live: and if thou restore her not, know thou that thou shalt surely die, thou, and all that are thine.

    It seems that God forgives both, the sometimes liberal things we do as well as the more conservitive.
    God is somehow giantly awesome in that through all the unexplained sinfull events that can occur or ever have occured in this world in the past, present, and future; in that he is great enough to see them and forgive them or make remedy for them as he did for abraham in that day. Or was abraham immune from sinning?

  • Katy

    I just imagine… Progressive and liberals posting something along the line of how conservatism is hurting Christianity… Lets face it, we all fall short from the glory. I would love to see humidities and admitting our faults before we criticize. as conservatives see progressive and liberal Christianity dangerous… There are plenty progressive who see dangers from both conservative and liberal sides.

  • Katie

    Thank you for writing this! My neighbor sent me an article entitled “6 things Christians should just stop saying.” (Huffington post). Your article is a good antidote.

  • ray

    thy word is truth! when we start bowing to what man says, we have crossed the line between God and man! as a christian we are told that homosexuallity is a sin! plain and simple! so to accept the fact is God’s way, not mans way, to quote “there is a way that seems righ tto man but leads to death” (paraphrase) anyway yes we are not to hate the sinner but show him the way out of darkness with love! God is not going to apologize to sodom and gommorah! so as joshua said ” choose this day who you will serve, but for me and my house I will serve the Lord”

  • TLanceB

    Congratulations, this is one of the least Christian posts I’ve ever read.
    It’s views like yours that make people hate all of us Christians.

  • Debbie

    I see God as very conservative. Isn’t that why He’s so hated? His word keeps popping up and getting in the way of people doing what they want, even when they want to attend church and put on a face of righteousness while supporting things that the Bible abhors in the position of tolerance and love. God is tolerant in not bringing another flood. I’m sure things were not any worse than this in Noah’s day. However the day is coming when all things will be judged. That message that was carried by the prophets is so offensive to people, and those that teach truth are some of the most demonized of all in todays society. Look at the martyrs and ask why.